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Dave Olson, Published February 10 2013

Moorhead man’s trip to Cuba reveals island stuck in time

MOORHEAD – In some ways, traveling to Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, is like traveling back in time, circa 1959.

That was the impression Rod McLarnan had when the retired Moorhead attorney and seasoned world-traveler recently spent a week touring the island nation.

And Cuba is an island in more ways than one, said McLarnan, 86.

The vintage cars that travel the streets of the capital of Havana are symbols of the embargo the United States imposed on the country in the early 1960s, after Fidel Castro nationalized property owned by U.S. citizens and corporations.

Because many cars in Cuba were imported between World War II and the beginning of the embargo, McLarnan said owners have become expert at maintaining them with scavenged parts, or parts obtained through other countries.

It’s important to keep the cars running and looking good, he said, because a doctor who owns a car can make more money driving cab than practicing medicine.

“Wherever we went, the embargo was something that was an irritant,” McLarnan said. He was one of about 24 Americans who traveled to Cuba as part of a people-to-people program sponsored by Global Volunteers.

He said the organization’s aim is to mobilize volunteers to wage peace and promote justice through service worldwide.

“It’s done with the encouragement of our government, so that suggests our government is interested in Americans having contact with Cubans,” he said.

“It’s that old story. The more I know you, the better we’ll get along.”

McLarnan said he visited landmarks such as the home of writer Ernest Hemingway and a museum honoring legendary revolutionary Che Guevara.

Both men are revered in Cuba, especially Guevara, he said.

“I’m telling you, this guy is regarded as a God in Cuba. His picture is all over.”

One of the most interesting parts of the trip was a visit the group paid to a representative of the U.S. government, who provided background on Cuba’s history and culture.

McLarnan said about 80 percent of Cubans work for the government because the government owns everything.

He said less clear is what the other 20 percent do, though it’s likely they have ties to the Communist Party or military.

McLarnan said a major anxiety Cubans have is the fear Venezuela’s backing will dry up, just as Soviet support evaporated, causing economic disaster.

While it’s clear the country remains in the grip of stagnation, there are signs of growing economic opportunities for Cubans, he said.

“There is a little bit of opening up of private enterprise. They are starting to lease land to farmers, to give licenses to people who want to run little grocery stores.”

McLarnan feels for the young people of Cuba, a number of whom he met, including a young man who expressed a desire to become a sports announcer.

“You have young people with hopes and dreams. The question is, are those dreams going to be fulfilled in some way?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555